Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Colquhoun and MacBryde: encounters with the Two Roberts

‘Followers of the Two Roberts’ now have their own page here

This page’s contents:

  • The Two Roberts by themselves and others
  • The Two Roberts in ‘Picture Post’, 1949
  • Anthony Cronin on The Roberts
  • Julian Maclaren-Ross on the Roberts
  • ‘A world you didn’t grow old in’: Arthur Berry’s pub crawl with the Two Roberts
  • Cedra Osborne’s sweet princes, Colquhoun and MacBryde
  • John Moynihan on the restless lives of the Roberts
  • The Pick of the Bunch: Paul Potts on Robert MacBryde
  • Wyndham Lewis encounters the Two Roberts

 

The Two Roberts by themselves and others

Colquhoun and MacBryde were clearly in the habit of drawing (and occasionally painting) themselves and each other, and the accessible stock of such images seems to have grown lately, several emerging via The Leicester Galleries. Here are a few pulled together from here and there, with a couple by other hands. Many are from the late ‘thirties, but even so the variety of approaches, the lack of repetition, is remarkable. Interesting that Colquhoun tends to present himself as the romantic personality, while MacBryde, in his own eyes or in those of others, comes across as distinctly vulnerable.  Paul Potts judged that MacBryde had more “love in his nature” than anyone since Francis of Assisi.

Colquhoun by Colquhoun:

1940 (National Portrait Gallery)
drypoint 1940
(Scottish National Portrait Gallery)

Colquhoun by MacBryde:

1939

 MacBryde by MacBryde:

1938
1938

MacBryde by Colquhoun:

1939
1939
1938 (National Portrait Gallery)
1938

Colquhoun and MacBryde by others:

Colquhoun by Lucian Freud
MacBryde by Sven Berlin 1947

*          *          *

The Two Roberts in Picture Post, 1949

The popular illustrated magazine Picture Post for March 12 1949 ran a four page feature titled “Seven Artists Tell Why They Paint”, with brief quotes from Leonard Rosoman, Robert MacBryde and Robert Colquhoun, Prunella Clough, Keith Vaughan, John Minton and Patrick Heron, with photos by Felix H Man. A fairly close knit selection, with Heron maybe more towards the margins, and Rosoman, in my humble opinion, the weakest link. The Two Roberts occupied a full centre page, and each provided for the occasion, unusually, a tolerably coherent and extended statement of artistic intent. Colquhoun’s is described by Malcolm Yorke, in The Spirit of Place, as “the only interview he gave” – outside the much later Ken Russell film of the duo, that is. And Yorke ought to know.

Their statements don’t go much beyond Clive Bell’s by then commonplace notions of “significant form”, but even so they throw a little light on how the Roberts thought about their work. MacBryde, a frequent still life painter, talks of objects, but neither mentions people as subjects, nor do they say anything to illuminate the folksiness of their characters, a theme well represented by the small accompanying images of MacBryde’s Performing Clown (Tate collection, but annoyingly no online image) and Colquhoun’s The Whistle-seller, both marvellous choices.

Man’s joint photo of the pair posing jauntily at their easels has been reproduced here and there, but doesn’t seem to be readily accessible online. So here it is, with the related text. Roger Bristow, in his fine biography, identifies the setting as their Bedford Gardens studios, originally shared with John Minton, though the Roberts had left that location abruptly some two years before, in 1947. Maybe the feature had been a while in the making.

“Live, Travel, Work and Exhibit Together”: could that have been 1949-speak for “a gay couple”?

*          *          *

Robert MacBryde and Robert Colquhoun: Two Scottish Painters Who Live, Travel, Work and Exhibit Together

They were both born in Ayrshire, MacBryde in December, 1913, Colquhoun just over a year later. They studied together at Glasgow School of Art from 1933 until 1938, and then travelled in France, Italy, Holland and Belgium. They both had paintings hung in the UNESCO exhibition in Paris in 1946.

(Left) ROBERT MACBRYDE

I set out to make statements, in visual terms, concerning the things I see, and to make clear the order that exists between objects which sometimes seem opposed. I do this because it is the painter’s function, generally speaking, to explore and demonstrate in his work the interdependency of forms. This leads me beneath the surface appearance of things, so that I paint the permanent reality behind the passing incident, the skeleton which is the basic support of the flesh. In doing this I perceive a ‘pictorial logic’ which dictates that, if a certain line or colour exists in a painting, there must be certain other lines and colours which allow the completed painting to be an organic whole.

(Right) ROBERT COLQUHOUN  

Each painting is a kind of discovery, a discovery of new forms, colour relation; or balance in composition. With every painting completed, the artist may change his viewpoint to suit the discoveries made, making his vision many-sided. Figures and objects in many modern paintings may appear distorted. They will be so to those who seek a factual resemblance, or a mirror-like reflection. The special forms, evolved from the relation of colour masses, line and composition, to express the painter’s reaction to objects, will be the reason for a painting’s existence.

*          *          *

Anthony Cronin on The Roberts

Cronin by Patrick Swift

Cronin by Patrick Swift

In his 1976 memoirs of bohemia, Dead as Doornails, Anthony Cronin devotes some thirty pages to the Roberts, every one worth reading. His writing is crafted, snappy, beautifully observed and frequently hilarious. In addition to the Roberts, he is excellent on Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan and Julian Maclaren-Ross. Doornails is obtainable for the price of a small sandwich on Amazon – recommended!

Cronin’s, of course, is the primary version of the famous episode when Colquhoun, brandishing a carving knife, is said to have pursued MacBryde around the front garden of Cronin’s Wembley digs at the height of a thunder storm, both men stark naked. But he is also good on MacBryde’s declining years after the death of Colquhoun, and gives a touching account of his funeral. And unlike some Roberts-chroniclers, he clearly looked closely at their paintings. One could excerpt almost any passage with profit, but here are some of his core descriptions of the boys:

*          *          *

doornails“Like, I think, everybody else, I sensed their quality immediately. They had that curious directness of the Scots, which is so attractive to an Irishman, accustomed to charm but suspicious of what it conceals. In Colquhoun there was very nearly no concealment at all, or only as much as makes life possible for any human being, and particularly a very shy man. If there was any concealment in MacBryde, it was often a product of good manners, and only later of circumstance. Embellishment is another thing and so is reserve; MacBryde was certainly an embellisher and Colquhoun was reserved.

The appearance of both was an extraordinarily accurate index to character, and they made a strangely contrasting pair. Colquhoun was tall, roughly handsome, every feature open and strongly marked, the sort of long head that one associates with the Scots who have gone around the world as makers, builders and engineers. He was somewhat awkward and almost inarticulate, but his gentleness and warmth came across immediately because when you met him you met almost the whole man.

MacBryde on the other hand was small, and constantly in deft movement, even the way he picked up a glass or handled a cigarette suggesting precision and sensitivity to nuance and detail. He had a round head with the prominent, bushy eyebrows and the mobile rubber features of the clown, or perhaps of some sophisticated, disillusioned, rather tired French cabaret artist. He was as quick on the uptake as he was in movement. I have heard people speak of his malice, but I never experienced it, except in the case of people who had pushed him beyond bearing, and he certainly had a gift of intimacy, so that whatever he might have said he restored confidence and the flow of feeling immediately when you met him again. He was remarkably talented in every way. He sang and danced in modes all his own and he was a first-class cook. His feeling for the physical reached out to embrace the most trivial things, from buttons to boot polish, and he could improvise almost anything in almost any circumstance. I remember him ironing with a heated tablespoon and boiling handkerchiefs in salt.

And they had a fundamental trait: whenever they had more than the minimal amount of money they were princely with it, particularly to those at that moment poorer than themselves. I have noticed this to be true of all the Scots I have met. However the notion that the Scots are a parsimonious people grew up I do not know: I can only presume it to be another English libel on one of their subject races. In any case when the Roberts became destitute it was too late for them ever to acquire the real ingrowings of the condition. They were used to having money, and when they had it, they spent it.

MacBryde had, and retained to the end, a capacity to abandon himself gently and totally to the drink and the moment, so that in the right company he achieved incandescence. He had a beautiful voice and a repertoire of Scots songs and he was seldom reluctant to perform. The voice had originally been a light Scots tenor; now, though the pitch was perfect, it was so gone that the singing had to be a triumph of the dramatic art or nothing: part speech, part mere feeling, backed by an extraordinary sort of mime. Most of the songs were Robert Burns’ – also of course an Ayrshire man; much of the wording was inaccurate, but he had filled it out for himself over the years with verses which, though they were often almost meaningless, yet were fitting, even somehow deeply moving.

Colquhoun, who was perhaps rendered the unhappier of the two by the inability to work, unfortunately got drunker and got so earlier. As MacBryde said, he ‘wooed the drunkenness’; certainly sought a form of oblivion from drink; and got early into that state of wordless in articulateness which many alcoholics assume but which he liked to assume anyway because he was in fact a very shy and inarticulate man.”

*          *          *

Julian Maclaren-Ross on the Roberts

Maclaren-Ross in Man of Mystery mode

Maclaren-Ross in Man of Mystery mode

The first time that Julian Maclaren-Ross met Robert Colquhoun the latter is reported to have said “And you call yourself a Scotsman? You look like a bloody phoney …” – a comment that Maclaren-Ross clearly felt to be uncalled for. On the other hand, if the latter had been in his customary rig – long, fawn, belted “teddy bear” coat, buttonholed carnation, dark glasses and a gold topped cane – Colquhoun’s reaction might have been understandable. When Maclaren-Ross first met MacBryde (separately), the latter, “wearing a fringe and a kilt,” exclaimed “I don’t doubt he’s as scared of me as I am of him.” First impressions, then, were not especially sympathetic. But here, excerpted from his Memoirs of the Forties, is something of what Maclaren-Ross made of C & M on more extended acquaintance. To be taken with a pinch of salt, perhaps. But who was the kilted blacksmith “Shawn” who kept them company?

*          *          *

“In those days [1943] both Roberts, round about their early thirties (they never seemed afterwards to age), were fervent Scottish nationalists, sported kilts, and felt strongly about the accents Celts should speak with. They were then accompanied everywhere by a third, huge blond-headed smiling Scott called Shawn, who’d been a blacksmith, also sported a kilt, and seemed a permanent fixture, though he later got married and dropped out altogether, returning to the village forge from which he’d come.

Later too, the Roberts ceased to be Nationalists or to wear kilts and, as they gradually lost the need to defend their origins and the feeling of inferiority which had to be concealed under an outward sporran of racial pride, they became more bearable and even at times quite human. They retained however their accents, though Macbryde told me once that when they went back to Glasgow they were often accused of having become bloody English and people were not always able to understand what they said.

Macbryde was the more friendly and sociable, Colquhoun the wolfishly lean and sullen one, who conspicuously didn’t run with the pack. Like Macbryde he’d a swarthy skin but his sombre face was hollow-cheeked and lantern-jawed, with regular features and curling brown hair that became ringlet at the back of his head and neck. In his appearance there was something of the handsome hell-fire Calvinist preacher, as if he might at any moment call down the wrath of the Lord on the Sodom and Gomorrah that surrounded him. Spinsterish girls nearly swooned at the sight of his ascetic mouth, so masterful and clamped determinedly tight, as one of them described it longingly to me.

Colquhoun was the taller of the two and indisputably the leader; when they loosely loped along the street, always in single file and wearing pullovers (Colquhoun’s a tawny red, Macbryde’s thicker, darker blue, and naval looking) Macbryde devotedly followed. Once, when asked what he’d do if he came suddenly into a lot of money, he replied first that this was ‘no likely’, then that he’d give it all to Colquhoun to further the cause of his painting.

Macbryde had a round blue-chinned smiling face, thick straight black brows that crinkled wryly, a fag wobbling Dylan-like between his lips, and as a rule a cowlick of hair on the forehead instead of the fringe he’d worn when I first saw him. He had the reputation of being a wit and, though this was scarcely deserved, was certainly wittier when being rude than Colquhoun. He could also talk eloquently about the height of rhododendrons in his native land, but like his confrère and like so many other denizens of Soho and Fitzrovia he was rude and eloquent only when full of beer, and at sober moments silent, subdued and even polite.

Colquhoun and Macbryde quarrelled occasionally of course, and I have seen them fight: careering in a clinch the whole curve of a long bar, with all the club members skipping out of their path, until they reached the doorman at his desk, who then toppled them, still gripped together, into the street. Perhaps this incident was symbolic, since basically nothing could separate Colquhoun and Macbryde except what finally did: against which not even they were proof.”

*          *          *

“A world you didn’t grow old in”: Arthur Berry’s pub crawl with the Two Roberts

Arthur Berry in the early 1940's

Arthur Berry in the early 1940’s

In 1942, Arthur Berry, a promising 17 year old art student from a Potteries working class background, was given the opportunity of a London visit by a benefactor and art buyer, a Mr Thompson. First stop was to be a visit to the National Gallery in the company of “two Scottish painters”, whom Berry, wearing for the occasion a hopefully bohemian trilby, awaited eagerly. The painters turned out to be the Two Roberts, Colquhoun and MacBryde, and the cultural visit turned rapidly into a Fitzrovian pub crawl. This account is excerpted from Berry’s highly readable autobiography of 1984, A Three and Sevenpence Halfpenny Man, reprinted this year by North Staffordshire Press. (This should really go on the Roberts’ page above, but that’s now getting a bit crowded, and will be reorganised in due course.)

A recent post on Mark Finney’s blog lists the drinking holes of wartime Fitzrovia as catalogued by Berry’s fellow Potteries painter John Shelton. The York Minster, the Fitzroy and the Bricklayer’s Arms, all visited on this occasion, are included; Shelton notes that the latter was nicknamed “The Burglar’s Rest”. He lists several drinking clubs, including the famous Colony Room, but this cannot have been the basement club visited here, given that the Colony is on the first floor. The trio’s meal may have been at the “Coffee An”, a disreputable late night eatery on New Oxford St.

Berry in his later years

Berry in his later years

At this time the Roberts were at a flat in St Alban’s Studios in Kensington, a high ceilinged room with a raised gallery and staircase (“a little balcony”, as Berry puts it) at one end. Berry writes well on the Roberts’ dress sense, and on MacBryde’s singing (even if he does spell him as “McBryde” throughout). Their paintings in the studio also clearly made an impression on him; the “smaller pictures of lock gates” are a clear reference to Colquhoun’s oil The Lock Gates, recently painted, exhibited in 1942 and 1943, and now in the Kelvingrove, Glasgow.

It’s not quite the case, as implied here, that Berry was never to meet the Roberts again, but by the time he caught up with them in 1945, he suspected that already their “talents were now beginning to show signs of being damaged by the bohemian life they were living.” It does seem extraordinary quite how much drinking went on in the middle of a war.

Berry admits freely to having been a bit naïve about homosexuality at the time, but even so it’s odd that he shows no sign here of realising that the two Roberts were an item …

*          *          *

“… I saw two young men coming up the steps towards us. They were both in their late twenties and were dressed in what to me was a very bohemian way. Colquhoun had a long, handsome, bony face, with thick curly hair that grew down the back of his neck. He was wearing a cap and had a leather jacket on. McBryde had hair as black as liquorice and a round, high cheek-boned, Irish face. He was smoking a cigarette that hung from the middle of his top lip. Immediately, I felt the magnetism of their personalities. They were completely different from each other, yet were a perfect pair. Both spoke with rich, Scottish accents.

[After a short spell staring at pictures in the National, the three head off for a drink, starting at the York Minster (“the French Pub”), where they run into John Minton – “a thin-faced man dressed in a sailor’s jersey”, moving on to the Fitzroy and then to The Bricklayers in Charlotte Street, where Berry, not used to the pace of drinking, throws up in the toilets …]

The rest of the day was just a long succession of drinks. When the pub shut in the afternoon, McBryde led the way down some steps into a drinking club, which was a dimly lit cellar where the drinks cost twice as much as in the pub. The place was packed. At the top end of the tiny bar, a haggard-faced man with long hair and a cigarette holder was talking to a beautiful young girl who appeared to be drunk. As soon as she saw McBryde, she came over to him and kissed him. After the drinks had been bought, he started to sing again and as he sang, the company stood aside from the bar to watch him. I had never heard the song he sang before. It was about a girl called Lisa Lindsay who was about to be married but went off with the Lord Ronald McDonald instead. When he finished this song, there was a round of applause and drinks were bought for him, and he was prevailed upon to sing again. This time a Hebridean love lilt, a song which sounded sad and lonely and very far away from the club we were in.

[After more drinking, a confused café meal, at which he ruins a Vienna steak with excessive tomato ketchup, and a taxi ride back to Colquhoun’s and McBryde’s studio, Berry passes out.]

… when I awakened in the middle of the night, I’d got all my clothes and my shoes on and was lying on what felt like a camp bed against a small stove. I could hear someone snoring, and when I raised myself up, I could see the shape of a figure lying face to the wall on the other side of the studio. I could tell it was a studio by the big window that covered one side of the room … The sleeping figure, I could tell by its shape, was Colquhoun. I wondered where McBryde was sleeping, then I heard someone cough and saw a little balcony above my head and realised he must be sleeping up there …

Then suddenly I heard McBryde start coughing and get out of bed. A moment later, the light went on and he came down the stairs from the little balcony and went through the door. In a second or so, I heard the lavatory flush, so I got out of bed and went to relieve myself. I thought I’d never been so glad to have a pee in my life. McBryde, who I knew by now was called Sasha, didn’t go back to bed but made a cup of tea and lit a cigarette and began laughingly to go over what had happened last night. He said we’d all been drunk when we got back to the studio. This came as a tremendous relief to me as I’d imagined I was the only one in that state. Then Colquhoun began to get up and pulled the blackout blind up from the studio window. It was daylight outside and McBryde gave me a toasting fork to toast some bread. The studio was small and had two easels on a raised platform. On both of them there were half-finished pictures. The pictures were like nothing I’d ever seen before. They were cubist in the way they were structured, but had very distinctive colouring – mustard yellow and deep earthy reds. As I looked closer at them, I could see the images were of peasant-like figures with heavy faces split up in many places. Then I noticed some smaller pictures of lock gates and one still life of yellow citrus fruit. I didn’t know what to make of them or what to say as I sat drinking tea, while the two Roberts got dressed. Sasha, the very dark one, put a kilt on and a black shirt with a light-blue bow tie, while Colquhoun was pressing his trousers. They were both very particular about how they looked and dressed very elegantly in an artistic way, in clothes that seemed to suit their personalities perfectly.

[That day Colquhoun and Berry meet Mr Thompson, Berry’s benefactor, at the Savile Club, where Berry suffers from some social embarrassment. Berry and Thompson move on to an appointment with Jacob Epstein, bidding farewell to Colquhoun.]

Colquhoun … said good bye and walked off towards Bond Street. I felt sad as I watched him, for although I’d only known the two Roberts a few hours, I knew I’d never met anybody remotely like them and never would again. They were from a bohemian world I’d never realised existed – a world far more exciting and dangerous than the one I lived in, a world where you lived from day to day and drank without remorse. It was what I imagined the Paris of Modigliani and Soutine had been like. I didn’t realise then it was a world you didn’t grow old in.”

*          *          *

Cedra Osborne’s sweet princes, Colquhoun and MacBryde signature

As a ‘fifties habituée of Soho, Cedra Osborne (later Castellain) knew the Roberts well, and in her later years wrote about them warmly and perceptively. She was by all accounts a striking personality herself. The writer Khushwant Singh first met her in 1947 in Knightsbridge as a live-in housekeeper to Arthur Lall, Indian diplomat and friend of Nehru: “She did no housekeeping but was good company when drinks were served.” In a reminiscence published after her death, he described her as

a British beauty moulded like Britannia: large forehead, shock of hair, full-bosomed and well-proportioned open-air type – as they say, to see her was to love her … We got on famously because she was also warm-hearted.

Cedra Osborne and the Roberts try a bit of child minding at Tilty

Cedra Osborne and the Roberts try a bit of child minding at Tilty

Julian Maclaren-Ross recalled her as

a striking young woman with dull gold hair and earnest intense ultramarine eyes, built generally along the lines of Caitlin Thomas but with a straight instead of an aquiline nose and even better looking.

By 1950, separated from her husband, she was living at her father’s flat in Holborn. She may have been a little strapped for cash at this time, as she later recalled picking cigarette butts from the sand of Covent Garden ashtrays at the opening night of a ballet designed by the Roberts. In another post I have resurrected her poem “Ace of Spades”, published in 1952 in an edition of the quarterly Nimbus dominated by the Barker camp. In 1953 she acquired a house in Chalk Farm and let rooms. By then divorce was “in the offing”. At the invitation of Elizabeth Smart she and son Damon stayed with the Roberts for a few months at Tilty Mill “as a kind of household help … My job was to take care of the children. I was hopeless.” In a note here (bottom of the page), Damon Osborne states that Cedra had an affair with Colquhoun at this time. Anthony Cronin, without naming Osborne, recalls that, during the Tilty period, she had “been in the habit of declaring herself passionately in love with Colquhoun,” and alleges that in London she had once taxied him home the worse for wear, “under the cloak of general kindness,” only to wake him at two in the morning “to offer him, apparently as an aphrodisiac, anchovy sandwiches …” Though Colquhoun, who must have been the informant here, may have coloured the anecdote. But for Julian Maclaren-Ross she was merely the “most zealous” of the “devoted ladies” who wished to mother the Roberts:

I fancied her myself, but whenever we had a date she would talk earnestly about psychiatry and the electra complex, as though she were a head shrinker’s secretary instead of a portrait painter’s; then she’d start to wonder how the Roberts were getting along … once we arrived at the pub or club, MacBryde, usually by that time singing or stamping in a Scottish reel if not reeling tight, would without a word reach an arm round Cedra’s shoulders, sweep her into their circle and that was all for me that night.

Cedra Osborne poses with the Princess Margaret and an Annigoni self portrait

Cedra Osborne poses with the Princess Margaret painting and an Annigoni self portrait

Osborne may not have got the message. She merely recalls Maclaren-Ross sat in The Wheatsheaf, “upright at the far corner of the bar, playing the abominable match game, which he always won, for drinks.” Back in London, the Roberts lodged with Osborne for a while, an arrangement that did not last. Anthony Cronin remarks that, as his landlady, Osborne “seemed less enamoured now” with Colquhoun, and describes the atmosphere of the house as “moneyed progressive-bohemian and very English,” suggesting that the Roberts’ inability to pay rent, together with their pilfering of muesli from the communal kitchen cupboard, accounted for their eventual departure. Their landlady describes the situation a little differently below. Osborne took a step up in 1955 on becoming secretary to society and royal portrait painter Pietro Annigoni, a position she held for fifteen years. On one occasion she took Annigoni to meet the Roberts in Fitzrovia, on their turf; she did not record the conversation, but it should have been interesting. In 1958, when the Annigoni Princess Margaret portrait hit the headlines, her comments were quoted worldwide from suitably gushy press releases. There was further publicity the same year when Annigoni contributed twelve drawings to a book of nursery rhymes that she was writing:

‘I hope the book will be finished in time for Christmas,’ Mrs Osborne told reporters at her Hampstead flat.

She has been with Annigoni for three years at his Kensington studio as receptionist, secretary, confidante and diplomat.

Her most delicate task? Telling rich, influential people that Annigoni cannot paint their portraits. ‘You have no idea how offended they get,’ she sighed. ‘It’s amazing.’

lionShe remarried, though this was not to last, and later moved to France as Cedra Castellain. From the late ‘seventies she pursued a developing interest in the historical figure of Jesus Christ, which, “after more than twenty years of reading about him, pondering, with flashes of understanding and growing appreciation,” culminated in the writing of Blessed is the Lion. Failing to find a publisher, the book was self-published in 1997 in an edition of 200. The novel is an imaginative (though thoroughly researched) deconstruction that aims to hypothesize the human Jesus, a theme touched on years earlier by her fellow Fitzrovian Paul Potts (and more recently attempted – though clumsily and maliciously – by Philip Pullman). It depends quite largely on the apocryphal gospels of Thomas and Philip; Paul and “Paulinity”, a bit predictably, are damned as the great distortion. It’s a book that deserves careful consideration, though this is not the place.

A dedication on my copy of 'Blessed' to Eugenia Huneeus (Maria Eugenia), the distinguished Jungian analyst, who died in 2009

A dedication in my copy of ‘Blessed’ to Eugenia Huneeus (Maria Eugenia), the distinguished Jungian analyst, who died in 2009

Cedra Castellain died in October 2006. In October 1992, a month after its opening at the Royal Court, she had seen John Byrne’s play Colquhoun and MacBryde, which, in common with other old friends and the Barker family, she damned as “barbarously caricaturing six dead people – Dylan Thomas, George Barker, Muriel Belcher, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde. I knew them all except Adler, the Roberts much better than the others.” In response her recollections, as Cedra Osborne, appeared in the London Magazine for April/May 1993. In his 2010 biography of the Roberts, Roger Bristow cites personal conversations with her, though not this article.

“The Roberts. Colquhoun and MacBryde” is a warm, thoughtful and amusing reminiscence, though it shows signs of hasty editing, cutting off abruptly at the end of a page, apparently part way through her account of Colquhoun’s death. I have selected a few passages here. (For more on Elinor Bellingham-Smith, see John Moynihan, below.) As Cedra Osborne herself points out, the stories of quarrels and heavy drinking would be “poor entertainment” were it not for the personalities involved; “what lay underneath had wider implications.” We are pondering here a problematical temperament that made brilliance possible, but that also, in the longer run, appears to have destroyed it.

*          *          *

The Roberts Colquhoun and MacBryde

“They had, for some but not everyone, a magical attractiveness which drew people round them as moths to the light. Colquhoun was remarkably good-looking, with what he called a dark brown voice. MacBryde had the head of Neanderthal man, a twinkling eye and a cigarette dangling from the centre of pursed lips, which he only removed to talk, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. They spoke quietly, their Scottish accents such as the BBC sought after at that time. MacBryde was the quicker-witted, swift with repartee, but either of them could make a hilarious story out of a molehill. They gave out a generous warmth like food to the hungry – when they were sober.

The two met at Glasgow Art School, when MacBryde was twenty and Colquhoun eighteen. An early photograph shows that Colquhoun may not have been a handsome youngster. His hair is too crinkly and his cheeks too full. He was a shy man (when sober) in his forties and must have been painfully so then. MacBryde had worked for five years to get to Art School. I have heard from two different sources that he had a child during that time. In any case, he must have been comparatively a man of the world, probably as outgoing, as much the centre of attraction, as he was later on. They both came from outside the big city. They admired each other’s work.

The Roberts no longer [by 1950] wore kilts, but when they were against the world it was an English world they were against. ‘You still think you’ve got a fucking empire’ and so on. But more often they were against each other. Like many couples of long standing they had an in-language, incomprehensible to outsiders, usually uttered by MacBryde and suffered or resented by Colquhoun. ‘You were your father’s error’ cropped up fairly often. Only lately I came across the quotation: ‘You wear your father’s error’ – drunkenness, that is. ‘Goodnight, sweet prince’ sounds less offensive, but it could mean that MacBryde was away to better things, carrying, as always, the money with him, leaving the sweeter prince stranded.

Sometimes friends provided, sometimes Colquhoun was left to provide for himself. This he would do by saying to all, or sundry, with emphasis, ‘Buy me a drink.’ People often did. ‘Buy me a fucking drink’ made it less likely. ‘I love you so much’ brought varying results. ‘I am the best of them all’ left him dry. Sometimes MacBryde came back.

Sometimes during 1955 they lived in a room above my own, where Colquhoun did some drawings. They brought people with bottles back from Soho, and there were parties in my room, which had the piano. James ‘Burns’ Singer, a poet, brought his agreeable black wife to one of them. She was a child-analyst who, at a previous party, had offered to analyze Colquhoun, saying she was sure she could straighten him out. He was very polite about it. MacBryde used to play the piano for us. His limited repertoire unfortunately included ‘Way Down upon the Swanee River’. When he reached it, Jimmy leapt to his feet, crying: ‘I’d have you know my wife is black!’ He made for the piano, but was overcome by weight of numbers. MacBryde retired into the large cupboard (once a larder) off my room, and was heard sobbing. ‘Robert!’ shouted Colquhoun, ‘stop snivelling and come out of there.’ ‘Och, Robert’ came reproachfully from behind the door, ‘you know I like a good cry.’

When they went to bed, there would be silence for a time. Then I would hear the murmur of MacBryde’s voice, night after night, eventually provoking a muffled protest, with no effect. The murmur went on a little louder, and I could hear ‘Shut up’, perhaps with a thump or two. And later a louder, clearer ‘Shut up!’ Soon after would come the dark brown roar. ‘Will ye no keep quiet’. MacBryde’s murmur would rise to the roar. The machinery of eviction had systematically been put into gear. I did not ask them to leave – the lodgers were wonderfully patient – but Colquhoun, usually held to blame, had been driven to the end of his tether again.

After the Whitechapel exhibition of 1958, they rented a cottage in a village in Suffolk … In the intervals of country life they appeared in Soho. Sometimes Colquhoun would ring up: ‘Are you coming down? We’re in The …’ A pleasant evening would usually follow. Sometimes he got too drunk, and the bad language flowed. But we were only once thrown out, and from a little-frequented pub. I did hear quarrels in public, though rarely, and never saw the fighting reported by Maclaren-Ross.

Colquhoun avoided food, but MacBryde was aware of the need for it. His beloved was skeletally thin. Occasionally we went downstairs to Greek Jimmy’s or to the German restaurant in Greek Street, more often to the hot-dog stand at the bombsite. Even more occasionally we ate in the Gargoyle, at a long table with a long tablecloth, which Eleanor [Elinor] Bellingham-Smith (another painter, another drinker) fancied she could whip away without disturbing anything on top of it. It turned out she couldn’t.

Sometimes it was MacBryde who rang: ‘Robert’s drunk, can he come up?’ Or: ‘He’s very drunk, will you come and fetch him from The …’ Once it was the Northern Line platform of Leicester Square tube station – he had been left there alone, about as bad as setting him on fire [a reference to MacBryde’s half-hearted arson of the Suffolk cottage containing a sleeping Colquhoun]. Once it was: ‘We’re in Tottenham Court Road police station. Will you come and get us out?’

MacBryde used to snipe at me from time to time. I think that when I first knew them he did not mind women falling in love with Colquhoun – it added to their joint prestige. I imagine that like me they also loved MacBryde. However, he minded when Colquhoun grew fond of them. As he could not say what he really meant (‘Robert’s getting too fond of you’) he would make absurd accusations which made me laugh; and he would end up laughing too.”

*          *          *

John Moynihan on the restless lives of the Roberts

Young Moynihan at the typewriter

Young Moynihan at the typewriter

The late (and legendary) football writer John Moynihan’s Restless Lives, 2002, is a gossipy, though sometimes painful, chronicle of the earlier careers of his parents, the painters Rodrigo and Elinor Moynihan (Elinor Bellingham-Smith). It includes a strangely distant and waspish portrait of the Roberts, mainly Colquhoun, with some salacious detail on the hetero side of his sexuality. (Apparently Colquhoun “much admired” the Cockney singer Georgia Brown, later to find fame as Nancy in Oliver!) More sympathetic towards the unhappy figure of John Minton, Moynihan seems to have regarded the Roberts mostly as feral gate-crashers. But then, the Moynihans were at the Chelsea end of the Soho-Chelsea axis, where bohemia interfaced with the establishment. Here are one or two of the few more interesting bits. (It’s doubtful, by the way, that W S Graham was alone in using speed. The benzedrine he is said to have “snorted” would have been in inhaler form. And might account for some of the volubility of his earlier work … But stealing bedroom ornaments?)

*          *          *

“My mother’s inclination to divide people she knew into ‘sets’ saw the Roberts emphatically excluded from her own, until they increasingly began to gate-crash our gatherings in Chelsea looking for their old house-mate Johnny Minton, and sometimes Elinor’s painter friend, Prunella Clough … Rodrigo dreaded the Roberts’ arrival at the Queen’s Elm on Sunday evenings when they would drop in with their Essex landlord, the poet George Barker, oozing charm.

There were rare lulls between Ayrshire-style tempests, during which the Roberts would snarl and swear at each other, with the mumbled intensity of two old seals quarrelling in some battered cove within Arran’s view … If Elinor were in attendance, the Roberts would exert all the Celtic charm they could muster, for they adored my mother, and adored her more when she began to live apart from my father. They certainly were protective, like a pair of Ayrshire gamekeepers a little come down in the world. They knew life’s terrain as being uncomfortable and corrugated, and sometimes almost pathetically and tragically, because they would soon die young, they whispered warnings into her ear about ‘Life being a wee fucking tragedy.’

As Rodrigo began to disappear more frequently, the Roberts staggered in through the front door at 155, sometimes bringing a party of cronies including the Benzedrine-snorting poet, Sydney Graham, who would filch the odd ornament from her bedroom on their way back from the upstairs bathroom. The place began to smell like a brewery. The Roberts’ quarrels brought complaints from our neighbours … The nightly jazz from the radiogram, the guttural salvoes coming from the Roberts, or the odd burst of manic laughter from Johnny proved too much at times. We received letters starting, ‘Dear Mr Moynihan, we would like to refer to the extensive noise coming from your house in the early hours of yesterday morning.’ When, we could have added, Colquhoun was on his knees searching for a whisky glass he had dropped on Elinor’s prize coral sea-coloured carpet.”

*          *          *

‘The Pick of the Bunch’: Paul Potts on Robert MacBryde

From Potts’ 1960 autobiographic miscellany, Dante Called You Beatrice. This may well have appeared somewhere else before being anthologised, but if so I’m not sure where. Given that it is such an affectionate tribute, it’s odd that Potts mis-spells MacBryde’s name with an “i” throughout. The entire piece is thoroughly quotable, so it’s no surprise that bits have been frequently quoted. But here’s the whole thing. At the left here is a tiny John Deakin photo of Potts with the Barker crowd at Tilty Mill lifted from this very readable account. The back row includes, from the left, W S Graham, Colquhoun, MacBryde and Barker. Elizabeth Smart is sitting, and Potts is in the dark jacket, next to Cedra Osborne.

*          *          *

“THE PICK OF THE BUNCH

There have been four houses in England which have been like oases of happiness in a desert of despair. George Orwell’s Barnhill, on the Isle of Jura in the Hebrides, Robert MacBride’s Tilty near Thaxted in Essex, Margaret Gonly’s house in Yorkshire and Simon Weld’s home in London. Robert MacBride was the Laird of Tilty. He is the laird of any company he is in. To me he is the greatest artist of the lot of us. Greater than Robert Colquhoun, Jankel Adler, Francis Bacon, Victor Pasmore or Josef Herman. Greater than Barker or Thomas or Orwell or David Gascoyne or even Patrick Kavanagh. And this is the reason why I think so: Because he worked in a greater medium than theirs. His medium was love of human beings. He has had the best life of anybody I have known. He fell in love in his late teens and stayed that way with the same person until now, when he is nearing his own middle age. He was fully loved in return. And to top the scales in his favour, any adequate account of contemporary Scottish painting would have to reckon with his if he would but let them. He was the best provider of any artist I have known. If you met him in a Florentine street he’d take you on a short tram ride at the end of which there’d be a meal of pasta slowly simmering on the stove. I once saw him iron a shirt with a spoon. He was a Celt, a king and a radical. He had a Latin love of life and a Scots sense of simplicity. He could turn a cup of tea into a feast. He loved children, dancing, singing and giving you money. He’d give you a pound note as simply as most people would give away a cigarette and more quickly than some. He hated bad art, the Hanoverian dynasty and Lyons tea shops; loved Turkish baths, patrons and cooking. He had probably more love in his nature than anybody since St Francis of Assisi or Spinoza. He could hate well, too.

Being in the front room at Tilty talking and feasting and laughing with him and Robert Colquhoun; sitting on the floor or pacing across that floor, was one of the great poems of my life. When a working-class person is a gentleman, they are just that much more of a gentleman than an ordinary one. Change the gender and this is still true. He would welcome a lonely three-quarters of poet into his home, as some great Florentine lord might have welcomed the Venetian ambassador.”

*          *          *

Wyndham Lewis encounters the Two Roberts

As art reviewer and elder statesman, Wyndham Lewis was happy to big up the Roberts, though at one point he did not hesitate to regret publicly what he saw as a decline in Colquhoun’s work. In “The Rot Camp”, the final chapter of his 1951 miscellany Rotting Hill, he takes a stroll around Rotting (Notting) Hill, encountering various notables on his way, including Colquhoun and MacBryde.  His portrayal of Colquhoun has an edge of melancholy, and foretells his fall from grace. The phrase “out of date”, though used in an innocent context, is telling. And Lewis’ sense of the growing xenophobia in the area might be judged significant in the light of the Notting Hill race riots of 1958. The detail of MacBryde’s kilt being permanently invisible below the pub table has the ring of authenticity; the late Gordon Wharton encountered Colquhoun and MacBryde, whose work he admired, at the Fitzroy Tavern in Soho on several occasions in the early ‘fifties. When I asked him if he recalled either Robert wearing the kilt, he confessed “I never saw them standing up, or sober for that matter.” Here is Lewis’ brief glimpse:

*          *          *

“I went up the Hill, up Rotting Hill, to the rot camp, near the top. One needs some exercise, and this is where I prefer to take it. It is not that they have a monopoly of the rot in the camp, but it is where the rot flowers, the rot of Rotting Hill … … I approached Colquhoun. He was stooping over a book in an untidy book-tray. I said “Hallo,what book?” He turned with some shyness towards me. “I was looking at a guide book. It is out of date.” Colquhoun is not at all himself: I feel that he stagnates, there is something the matter. I know him very slightly and can only guess at what is adversely affecting him. He has been excluded from the Festival of Britain, he has not been invited to send a picture and he feels very bitterly this strange slight. Of the Hillworthies who are creative I place him first. I passed on and saw a kilt. This was MacBryde, wittiest of Hillmen, swinging his kilt along, without consciousness of the anomaly. He had an apprehensive eye upon Colquhoun whom he had seen handling a book. A few nights before MacBryde and his inseparable companion had been sitting at a table in a public house. The kilt was not visible so I gathered, and his rich Scottish idiom was to be heard as he told Colquhoun a story of a trip to Wigtown. “The marn went aroond the heel, and then came back wuth eet,” is the kind of way he talks. Several men at the bar hearing this strange music cocked a Britannic ear, one more especially. This latter eyed MacBryde with undisguised xenophobia. “The bloody Irish are bloody well everywhere.” But the man he was addressing had caught sight of the kilt beneath the table. “They’re Jocks, Harry, they’re no bloody Irish.” “So they are. Good old Jocks,” he vociferated, the minstrelsy of Harry Lauder warming his Brixton heart. But the popularity of this kilt had little effect upon MacBryde, who said to the first man: “If you have anything you wish to say, why do you say it to heem, why not to me!” What happened afterwards I was not told: but I reflected that a kilt might be a safeguard, among people whose dislike of all foreigners grows, though the kilt seems to dispel their mistrust.”

*          *          * 

12 responses to “Colquhoun and MacBryde: encounters with the Two Roberts

  1. Pingback: The oil paintings of John Shelton (1923-1993): an ongoing catalogue « finbofinbo

  2. Pingback: The Burslem Boys – Art Exhibition, Stoke-on-Trent; 19-26 Oct. 2012 « finbofinbo

  3. Pingback: Cats and Tables… an Homage to Robert Colquhoun « finbofinbo

  4. Pingback: John Shelton: Christie’s – 12 July 2012 « finbofinbo

  5. christopher July 16, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    Thank you for the interesting article. I wonder if David Carr isn’t in fact a link between quite a number of famous British artists… Colquhoun, MacBryde, Prunella Clough, L S Lowry and indeed Lucien Freud… and a very good artist in his own right judging by the pictures you show. Frances Spalding gives him quite a write up in her book on Clough out earlier this year.

  6. Pingback: John Shelton in The Sentinel – July 2012 « finbofinbo

  7. Roger Allen September 6, 2012 at 2:55 am

    Stefan Themerson, Jankel Adler: an artist seen from one of many possible angles, Gaberbocchus Press, London. 1948
    drawingsby Adler from that time.

    • richardawarren September 6, 2012 at 8:28 pm

      Thanks, Roger. I’ll follow that up. Strangely, a friend (second hand book seller) has just introduced me to Themerson and Gabberbochus, about whom/which I know very little. But very interesting stuff!

  8. Pingback: Manchester with The Roberts « finbofinbo

  9. Pingback: ‘The Burslem Boys’ exhibition – Norman Cope, Arthur Berry & John Shelton « finbofinbo

  10. Bruce Sherratt June 10, 2017 at 10:16 am

    I was a student of John Shelton from 1959 to 1962, and then went on from Newcastle-under-Lyme Art School to London and Camberwell Art School. John was my mentor and artistic father. John gave an identity and birth to this gauche, lost son of a coal miner who at 15 could do little else but draw.
    From John I learned about the artists discussed here. Arthur Berry was a figure of mythic proportions to me as a boy growing up in the small Staffordshire coal mining village of Biddulph four miles from Stoke.
    I used to see Arthur strolling like a mobile statue between Biddulph high street and coppice wood where he lived with his dad in a jet black tar covered hut. Arthur and his dad kept a few pigs in a small sty next to the hut. Arthur was an enigmatic, statuesque figure feared by us boys. None of us knew his name or who he was. I only found out after entering the local art school in 1958.
    At Camberwell there was an established school style. One was expected to strive to achieve this style, a painterly approach consisting of broad impressionistic brush strokes. Bonnard was held up as the ultimate role model. I was the odd-ball working class character from the North to whom this official style seemed shallow and anemic compared to what John Shelton had showed me, which included everything from the generation of British and other artists based in London during the war years whom you’ve discussed here, to the German Expressionists; Dix, Grosz, Barlach, Kolwitz and Max Beckman. My particular latent psycho-creative adolescent neurosis and talent propelled me directly into the very core of fantasy and surrealism and it’s most authentic purveyors, such as Ernst, Masson, Tanguy, Matta, Victor Brauna and on to their forbears, Grunewald, Durer, Goya and Bosch.
    John Shelton encouraged and inspired me in all of this while also introducing me to the most revolutionary politically inspired artists in history; the Mexican muralists: Orosco, Rivera, Siqueiros, Tamayo, and the German-Austrian-Mexican surrealist Wolfgang Paalen, who Shelton told me was eaten alive in the Mexican desert by wild dogs. In fact, it appears he shot himself in the head on a hill outside Taxco in 1959 during one the bi-polar episodes that plagued, not just Paalen, but many other surrealists of his vintage throughout his life: a rich and heady initiation indeed into the artists’ world for the 15 years old coal miner’s son from Biddulph.
    John showed me the work of Victor Brauner whose imagination had also been set aflame in Mexico, the Cuban Wilfredo Lam and the English woman surrealist and Ernst’s former lover and muse Leonora Carrington, whom I met in 1968 in Mexico city where my own work was first exhibited at the Instituto Anglo-Mexicano De Cultura.
    John Shelton was an interesting mixture the tough, almost brutal taskmaster and benign, fatherly mentor who sowed the seeds for me to develop into what he called a “heavyweight” rather than a mere “bantamweight”. Indeed, like a boxing coach who goads the promising pugilist to reach far beyond himself John Shelton prodded, provoked and cajoled me, making it clear he was not at all interested in the verbally stated ideas and intentions of his followers but in what they actually produced. “Show me, then talk” was his axiom. On reflection I understood later that this was a continuation of the mentoring he had received as a young painter from the two Roberts and Adler: a blend of uncompromising, sometimes brutal honesty and candor cadenced with the sincere wish to nourish the seeds of an uncompromising, high voltage form of creativity and see them grow and mature into something splendid.
    Having emulated John Shelton and the two Roberts (Colquhoun and MacBryde), Jankel Adler and others, unlike these London based painters of the 40’s and 50’s I went on to meander, not the streets of Soho but the world, setting up my first studio in Mexico, then San Francisco in 1970 and on to Africa, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Jakarta and now Bali.
    I absorbed influences and inspiration from all these places and cultures so very far from my own geographical roots. These by now deeply digested influences, mixed with a hundred other ingredients including an early obsession with Buddhism, Eastern philosophies and psychologies, Freud, Jungian psychoanalysis, Melanie Klein’s ‘object relations psychology’ with reference to the origins of fantasy and on and on the list goes.
    All this, plus much more led to the development of a visual syntax that is thoroughly international and archetypal, perhaps universal even in content, form and meaning.
    Yet after processing this plethora of experiences that have impacted and mediated my own particular creative nexus and character over the course of more than five decades I find my thoughts returning to those potent early heroes of John Shelton’s youth and subequently my own early beginnings. Men such as Robert Colquhoun and Robert McBride, Jankel Adler, Graham Sutherland, Alan Davie, Francis Bacon and the poet George Barker.

    Bruce Sherratt

    To see my work visit https://www.brucesherrattpaintings

    • finbofinbo June 21, 2017 at 3:38 pm

      Thankyou, Bruce and Richard. I printed out and read through your recollections with Vera S earlier this week – it was clear that they made her very happy. Thanks.

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